Click here to [close]

Friday, March 3, 2023

Wayne Shorter (1933 - 2023)

Wayne Shorter (photo:

By Martin Schray

It was his tone that made the difference. One of those otherworldly lines charged with unusual intensity, like a hot knife cutting through butter. Few of these tones were enough and it was clear that they could only come from Wayne Shorter, one of modern jazz’s greatest saxophonists. His crystalline sharpness bathed each composition in a more powerful, glistening light. Shorter could capture his audience and drag them into his cosmos, where the space to breathe then seemed infinite. This worked with large formations as well as with a jazz rock band or in a duo with Herbie Hancock, his old buddy. But Shorter was also one of the few who could play with pop musicians. Joni Mitchell’s albums “Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter“ and “Mingus“ wouldn’t be the masterpieces they are if Shorter hadn’t augmented them with his hypnotic sound. Just listen to the orchestral version of “Both Sides Now“ from Mitchell’s album of the same name, or Steely Dan’s “Aja“, another pinnacle of pop/jazz rock. Shorter provided that space for everyone when they needed it, even and especially for the greats: Miles Davis, of course, and then Joe Zawinul or the aforementioned Herbie Hancock. Lately, it has been mainly the new stars of jazz, even if they no longer shine as brightly as in the 1960s and 70s: drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, pianist Danilo Pérez, or bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, to name a few examples.

Shorter was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933. His first jobs were in Horace Silver’s band and Maynard Ferguson’s orchestra before Art Blakey discovered him for the Jazz Messengers, the incubator that produced so many great modern jazz musicians. Blakey put him in the front row with trumpeter Lee Morgan, and the two were a dream team. Morgan had the irresistible forward drive, Shorter a mature, melodic depth. From that point on, things went uphill. Miles Davis poached Shorter when he needed a new saxophonist to replace John Coltrane for his new band. The trumpeter was already a superstar at the time who had recorded Kind of Blue. Davis had searched for a long time until he found a successor for the brilliant Coltrane, who even recommended Shorter to Davis. What was more, however, Shorter didn’t have to look the other way to Davis; he was already an excellent and talented composer at the time and met Davis’s genius on equal terms. Before and while he was part of the quartet, he had already released critically acclaimed albums under his own name such as Night Dreamer (Blue Note, 1964), Juju and Speak No Evil (both Blue Note, 1965 ). So, from 1964 to 1969, he was a member - along with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams - of that second “classic“ Miles Davis Quintet, probably one of the best jazz bands ever. Shorter contributed to that legend status by writing classics like “Footprints“ and “Nefertiti“. 

After the end of this magical band in 1970, Shorter founded the jazz-rock formation Weather Report together with keyboardist Joe Zawinul and bassist Miroslav Vitouš, a jazz supergroup, which also later became a legend of their own. For them he often played the soprano saxophone, a key characteristic of Weather Report’s sound. At first, they seemed to be picking through the ashes of Miles Davis’ electric bands, but compositions of extraterrestrial power like “Micky Way“ or “Orange Lady“ from the band’s first album emerged from these embers and proved that they didn’t have to hide from Davis’s groups. Even as Weather Report smoothed out the edges and embraced the fusion zeitgeist (as on their biggest hit “Birdland“), Shorter retained certain rough sounds, he never lost his oboe-like edge.

His acoustic quartet with John Patitucci (bass), Danilo Perez (piano) and Brian Blade (drums) - all seasoned jazz musicians in their own right, even if they were considerably younger than Shorter – set a the bar high for contemporary jazz ensembles at the end of his incredible career, which can be heard on Without A Net (Blue Note, 2013) or Emanon (Blue Note, 2018). On these albums clear compositional structures and improvised parts are arranged almost in an exemplary fashion, as if they were a blueprint for this format.

On Wednesday, this gentle giant, certainly one of the biggest stars jazz has ever had, died in a Los Angeles hospital at the age of 89. May he rest in peace.

Watch Wayne Shorter with his quartet in an excerpt from a concert in Bonn 2014: 


Alvin Bishop said...

Weather Report was my favorite of all time.